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China’s new carrier poses a challenge

Posted: October 25, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: October 25, 2012 2:00 a.m.

China officially welcomed its first aircraft carrier into its navy last month, triggering nationalist pride at home, while generating unease abroad. China’s intentions have been called into question by its neighbors, but China is actually doing what all rising powers naturally do — translating economic muscle into military strength. How then, will America meet this new challenge in the Pacific?

Aircraft carriers are global power projectors with lethal offensive capabilities. It is no surprise the United States maintains 11 carriers and has two in construction, along with nine big-deck amphibious warfare ships. America’s carriers enable it to maintain its global security hegemony and respond to any threats to its interests. China would like to find itself in a similar position in which it could secure its own interests through the force and presence of its naval power. Any student of international relations will tell you as powers rise, their interests expand, and their need to secure those interests inevitably follows.

Although China’s new aircraft carrier is an important geopolitical reality, I don’t want Americans to get panicky. China purchased the Soviet-era carrier from the Ukraine in 1998. The carrier is smaller than any of America’s super-carriers, and most importantly, China’s carrier is without an air wing to accompany it. An aircraft carrier without an air wing is like a tank without a gun turret. The Chinese navy will need to train for years to successfully develop and deploy an air wing that is capable of conducting long-term air and sea operations.

So, I suppose the point here is that China’s new carrier will have more of a political impact than a military one. China clearly intends to play a larger and more visible role in the Pacific. The political reverberations can already be seen as smaller states around China’s periphery like Vietnam and the Philippines are clamoring for security agreements with the United States. Larger powers in the region like Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea are looking to the United States to step in and balance China’s rise.

The challenge America will have to meet will largely depend on which global course China decides to take. There are generally two schools of thought that dominate the debate over China’s rise and what America should do about it. The first school of thought asserts that China will continue to peacefully rise within the confines of the international system America created after World War II. In this scenario China will play by the already established global rules of the road and will forgo any desire to change those rules, or carve out a Sinocentric sphere of influence.

The second school of thought suggests the opposite will happen and China will confront the American order to which we have all become accustomed. A hostile China would seek to advance its interests in the Pacific, and eventually around the world by bucking the current order and operating under its own rules. It is still unclear which path China will take, but I know history teaches us that rising powers inevitably choose to re-order the world around its own interests and priorities. The current international order was largely created without Chinese input which makes it more likely China will defy its rules and pursue its own agenda.

Americans might gain some perspective by considering how China’s rise is analogous to America’s rise at the turn of the twentieth century. The United States steadily secured regional hegemony over the American continent, and eventually built a powerful navy which President Teddy Roosevelt named the “Great White Fleet.” Roosevelt’s fleet circumnavigated the globe in a show of force and pride. Roosevelt wanted the world to know that America was a great power that could advance and protect its interests wherever it wished.

Today, China finds itself in a similar position and unquestionably wields as much nationalist pride as America did 100 years ago. While China is far from launching an entire fleet around the world, its new aircraft carrier may be the beginning of a regional or global security hegemony they eagerly and naturally desire.

Kevin Bayona is a Valencia resident. He earned a BA in international relations and political science from Fairfield University, studied global affairs at New York University, and is a member of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.



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